Watermelons were a summertime treat in my childhood home. They didn't appear at our table very often, because they were expensive when out of season and pretty unnecessary. But every once in a while, my mother would bring one home. It would sit in our kitchen floor for what seemed like years, but was at most a couple of days. It taunted me with its very presence, because I was little and not in control of my own watermelon destiny. When it was there, I asked Mama every single day, "Are we gonna cut the watermelon tonight?" I don't remember for certain, but I'm willing to bet that she always said, "We'll see."
When it was cutting time, we cleared off the kitchen table completely to allow for however many kids to have a place. You had to eat watermelon at the table, because it was messy and because there was a rule about not eating on the couch anyway (a rule that was stretched to allow for popcorn and Coke nights). We spread out newspaper on the table, as if we were going to be housetraining puppies up there. The unsuspecting melon sat innocently at the head of the table, turned so that its long side faced the executioner. My dad took the biggest knife we had and went at the melon with a mighty WHACK! right down the center.
I know you're supposed to thump the melon and listen for hollowness, but I say that you can never really tell how good a melon will be until that first cut. I don't guess I've ever had one that wasn't ripe enough, but I've had the disappointment of a watermelon past its prime. You can tell from the color, from the sweet cracking sound it makes when you WHACK! it, from the smell that comes wafting out.
Once the first WHACK! was over, Daddy cut through the rest, splitting our feast in half. Then he cut half slices from one side and passed them out to greedy, soon-to-be-sticky hands. When he got too close to the end to make a decent slice, he'd cut the rest of that half of the melon into quarters. Those were the best pieces, because they didn't fall over. In the middle of the table would sit every salt shaker in the house.
Did you know that some people eat their watermelons with salt? Did you know that some people do not eat their watermelons with salt? Me, I grew up in a salted watermelon house, and I really thought it was like putting ketchup on fries or pickles on hamburgers or ranch dressing on everything. Watermelon and salt are flavor friends, it's like scientific fact. But I got out into the real world, and there are people out there do not put salt on their watermelon. This realization was akin to finding out that my friend Estelle's family ate the whole rind. I ate right down to the white, and I was considered weird for it in my own family. The bottom of the red is a flavorful area with no seeds to slow you down. I used to collect the discarded rinds of my siblings and eat that last inch of red that they had left behind. Eating all the red is smart, but eating the rind is downright barbaric, and not using salt makes it seem like you don't understand about flavor friends.
We ate our fill of the watermelon, and I don't remember ever being told to stop. Watermelon, when it was there, was not like soda where you were allowed to have half a glass and only after drinking a full glass of milk. Of course, you had to be careful about eating watermelon right before going to sleep, because you might wake up in the night with a bed full of watermelon pee. Whatever was left of the melon was covered in plastic wrap and put in the fridge, where it would wait for me to eagerly pull it out again. My mom would do that too. She cut all the red part from her slice into cubes, salted them, and then ate them with a fork from a recycled cool whip container.
Rinds were collected in a big stainless steel pan and then taken out to the compost pit in the middle of the garden. In the summer, giant, sprawling watermelon plants would grow from our discarded seeds. They took over the pit such that you couldn't even see the multitude of coffee grounds in there. Every year I hoped, but was disappointed, that those plants would produce something worth eating. It's probably just as well, because if I'd had access to unlimited watermelon, my hands would be permanently sticky with sweet and salty juices.
Now I am a grown-up, and I am in control of my own watermelon destiny. I know which of my knives is best suited to give that initial WHACK!, and I've got a little patch of woods where I can fling rinds secretly from my apartment balcony in the dead of night. I have three salt shakers. I live alone, and so it is up to me to eat an entire watermelon (but not right before bed). I don't mind telling you that I am up to the task.